The "militarization" of the New School
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 18 07:24:53 MST 2003
(It must be bad karma or something, but the two institutions of higher
education that I have received degrees from are now being run by sleaze
bags. With Bard College's Leon Botstein, you get empire-building
financed by thieving financiers. With the New School's Bob Kerrey, you
get what is aptly called the "militarization" of New School University.
When I got my masters, it was called the New School for Social Research
and still had deep roots in the left culture of emigree Frankfurt
scholars, John Dewey, et al.)
Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 18, 2003
The Education of Bob Kerrey
The president of New School U. acclimates to academe while keeping an
eye on the White House
By JULIANNE BASINGER
In late November, 25 students marched into the office of Bob Kerrey,
president of New School University, and accused him of betraying the
institution's liberal traditions by publicly advocating military
intervention in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Kerrey was visibly angry that the students, who wanted him to hold a
public forum, had invaded his office. According to the students, he
paced around for a few minutes and swore under his breath.
By the end of the encounter, though, Mr. Kerrey had made what for many
other university presidents would be an easy decision: He agreed to hold
"The students who came into my office, they were rude and disrespectful,
and I got angry at them," Mr. Kerrey says now. "But I agreed to what
they wanted in the end because I thought what they were asking for was
Two years into his presidency at New School, Mr. Kerrey -- a former
governor and two-term U.S. senator from Nebraska with no academic
experience -- has begun to acclimate himself to the traditions and
values of higher education, making some concessions along the way. He
has retreated, for instance, from some strategies for raising revenue
that led to the resignation of a dean last spring. But he is willing to
bend only so far. He still keeps a hand in politics, and hasn't ruled
out a run for the U.S. presidency in 2008. Nor does he plan to stop
speaking out about issues like the potential war in Iraq.
How well his balancing act is working depends on whom you ask. Some
faculty members, students, and alumni question his commitment to the
university's traditions and, for that matter, to the place itself.
New School trustees, meanwhile, like the national attention his
celebrity has brought their institution. "We feel there's a certain
mileage for the university in having him continue to be a visible figure
on the political scene," says Michael E. Gellert, one of the board's
Mr. Kerrey is taking the critics in stride. "I'm not intimidated by
protests or disagreements," he says with a shrug. "Quite the contrary.
That gets my juices flowing. I like arguments."
A New Perspective
Mr. Kerrey, 59, became New School's president by seizing an opportunity.
The university's previous leader, Jonathan Fanton, an American-history
scholar, stepped down in 1999 after 17 years as president to head the
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the trustees at first
had trouble finding a replacement they liked. After an initial search
was suspended, the trustees began anew, deciding that a nontraditional
candidate might be a good idea for a nontraditional university.
One trustee, Julien J. Studley, knew Mr. Kerrey from Democratic Party
fund-raising events and sought his advice on possible candidates. Mr.
Kerrey decided he was interested in the job himself.
He had made an unsuccessful run for U.S. president in 1992, and in 1998
he had considered and then decided against another presidential run in
2000. His then-girlfriend who is now his wife, Sarah Paley, a former
writer for Saturday Night Live, lived in New York near the university.
Mr. Kerrey decided that he was ready to return to private life at New
School, especially since, he says, he had always had an interest in
education. During his last year in the Senate, he had led a
Congressional committee that recommended ways to support research on
distance education and to foster quality in Web-based instruction.
As a senator, Mr. Kerrey was known as a reflective man who could see the
contradictions in issues. That sometimes made him seem ironic or
paradoxical, and it earned him the nickname "Cosmic Bob." He also has a
penchant for poetry, as well as novels with existential antiheroes. But
unlike most college presidents, he lacks a doctorate; his only degree is
a bachelor's in pharmacy from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Such an untraditional choice for a college presidency, though rare, is a
trend in academe. And Mr. Kerrey had an in: Some of New School's
trustees were Democratic Party supporters who had known Mr. Kerrey as a
senator, and a few had even contributed to his campaigns, according to
federal election records. John L. Tishman, a board vice chairman who was
chairman when Mr. Kerrey was hired, is one of the party's biggest donors.
During Mr. Kerrey's last term in the Senate, most of his financial
support came from outside his home state, led by New York City donors,
who gave 16 percent of the total. Since they included not only trustees
but many current and potential donors to New School, the board saw his
celebrity and political ties as strong factors that would help the
university raise money.
When he moved into the New School president's office, in early 2001, Mr.
Kerrey took over a confederacy of eight colleges with programs in the
arts, social sciences, and professional and continuing education that
had become a university only three years earlier. New School now enrolls
about 7,000 degree-seeking students and 20,000 in its
In addition to fund raising, Mr. Kerrey wanted to bring a greater
coherence and unity to the parts that once were independent entities:
the Actors Studio Drama School; Eugene Lang College, a liberal-arts
division; the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science; the Jazz
& Contemporary Music Program; the Mannes College of Music; the New
School, which offers adult-education programs; the Parsons School of
Design; and the Robert J. Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban
Trial by Firestorm
Mr. Kerrey's aims were interrupted when his past returned to bedevil
him. In April 2001, The New York Times Magazine and CBS's 60 Minutes II
raised serious questions about his actions as a lieutenant commanding a
team of six other Navy Seals in the Vietnam War. During his years as a
politician, Mr. Kerrey had been regarded as a war hero. He had been
awarded the Medal of Honor in 1970 after coming home with a wound that
resulted in the amputation of the lower part of his right leg.
The Times and CBS revealed that the team had killed more than 20 unarmed
women and children in a nighttime raid on a Vietnamese village, Thanh
Phong, in 1969. Members of the Seal team had kept the incident to
themselves for nearly 30 years.
A new book by Gregory L. Vistica, The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey,
published last month, details his three-year investigation of the
incident. The book also describes Mr. Kerrey's contradictory memories of
the raid and later efforts to respond to the reporting, including his
use of $60,000 in leftover campaign funds to hire an outside
public-relations firm to help spin the story. Mr. Kerrey now
acknowledges hiring the firm, but says he did so because the
university's media office was ill equipped to handle such a large-scale
story and because the matter was personal, not university-related.
Mr. Vistica charges that Mr. Kerrey may have committed war crimes as a
25-year-old lieutenant, and now should be investigated for it. But the
book also shows that U.S. military policy in Vietnam made few
distinctions between civilians and Vietcong combatants. Mr. Kerrey, who
talked to Mr. Vistica throughout his reporting, admitted to CBS that the
killings had been an "atrocity."
"I knew something really bad had come from me," he told Mr. Vistica. "I
had perpetrated something just terrible. At that moment, you feel like
what just happened is you've been possessed by something really evil,
and you've acted on it."
The Vietnam revelations created an uproar at New School, which had been
a center for protest against the Vietnam War. Many faculty members and
students called for Mr. Kerrey's resignation. Even the trustees were
caught by surprise, and Mr. Kerrey now acknowledges that he did not warn
them of the forthcoming reports before he was hired. Mr. Gellert, for
one, says Mr. Kerrey should have done so.
But Mr. Gellert and the other trustees understood the complexities of
that conflict, and issued a statement offering their "unqualified
support" for Mr. Kerrey.
"It is hard for us to imagine the horrors of war," the trustees wrote.
"We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through and must
continue to deal with."
As the uproar over the Vietnam revelations began to die down, another
crisis erupted, this one testing Mr. Kerrey's mettle as an academic
administrator. The September 11 terrorist attacks on New York rocked New
School, which is housed in several buildings scattered around Greenwich
Village and has a dormitory near the site of the former World Trade
Center. Enrollments plummeted and, for a tuition-dependent university
like New School, the situation was grim.
Mr. Kerrey's style as an executive helped shape his response. When it
comes to his own schedule, Mr. Kerrey is a hands-on micromanager who
reads his own e-mail, monitors his calendar, and makes his own telephone
calls. He tends to delegate responsibility for broader issues to his top
administrators. But he can still plot and follow a strategy with
military resolve, and that is precisely the approach he took as he moved
quickly to tighten the budget.
Enrollments recovered within a year. But the budget measures made waves,
particularly a decision in November 2001 to disclose budget information
for each division to all deans and faculty members across the university.
In the past, individual deans had such data on only their own divisions.
But now they were able to see the deficits in many schools, including
the Graduate Faculty, and the large subsidies provided by the
university's cash cow, the Parsons School of Design. Mr. Kerrey wanted
to make each division self-sufficient, even though many graduate
programs in academe are not. He also talked of awarding bonuses to deans
who increased the tuition-paying enrollment in their divisions.
For the deans whose schools were in deficit, the disclosures appeared to
brand them as slackers. Faculty members in the divisions providing
subsidies questioned why the money should go elsewhere, rather than to
salary raises in their own areas, according to professors.
Mr. Kerrey, who spent years as a businessman running chains of
restaurants and health clubs in Nebraska before entering politics,
defends his budget decision. "It's easier for me to have a conversation
about how to become a university if everybody sees and understands what
the numbers are, because they then feel an urgency," says Mr. Kerrey,
his somewhat high-pitched voice flavored by a Midwestern accent. "It
doesn't mean that we have, by any means, agreement. In lots of ways,
it's provoked disagreements."
Indeed, the dean of the Graduate Faculty, Kenneth Prewitt, resigned last
March to protest Mr. Kerrey's budget plans.
Mr. Prewitt, who had been in office less than a year, said that the
president's policies risked subordinating academic values to market
values. The dean worried about the Graduate Faculty's ability to secure
funds and play a central role at the university, particularly because
the administration had failed to make promised hires in weakened
The crisis sparked by his resignation led to a teach-in last spring to
draw attention to concerns about the Graduate Faculty's future. The
event was headlined by Richard Rorty, the Stanford University professor
and philosopher. Mr. Rorty explained that the Graduate Faculty still
played an important intellectual role in fostering the Continental
philosophical tradition that began with
the Faculty's founding, in 1933, as a "university in exile" for Jewish
intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt and Claude Lévi-Strauss, who were
fleeing totalitarian regimes in Europe.
Mr. Kerrey's failure to understand academic culture was partly to blame,
says Mr. Prewitt, now a professor of public affairs at Columbia
University. "You want to make sure that the signals that you are sending
sustain whatever the image and identity of a place is. Bob understands
that, but it took him a while to begin to work on getting the language
right, the vocabulary right."
Still, Mr. Kerrey learned from his mistakes. As Mr. Prewitt was leaving,
Mr. Kerrey rethought some of the proposals, such as incentives for
deans. He also took steps to address some of the Graduate Faculty's
problems, including authorizing funds to fill tenure-track positions.
But Mr. Kerrey stood firm on his decision to make the budget
transparent, and the schools' increased accountability has some
administrators singing his praises. "It has created a more honest
relationship among us," says H. Randolph Swearer, dean of the Parsons
School. "It has created a context in which we are all together facing
In fact, Mr. Kerrey, who was known as a maverick in the Senate, has
learned he must build consensus. So with the help of the faculty, plans
are under way to create a universitywide core curriculum for
undergraduates. Mr. Kerrey has also agreed to form a universitywide
faculty senate, at the faculty's request, and a student council.
And the bottom line continues to improve. He raised $22-million in gifts
and pledges in the 2002 fiscal year. The university's endowment, now
valued at $105.5-million, has performed well in a down market. And last
month, New School formed a partnership with Britain's Open University to
develop distance-education programs and expand both institutions'
markets in North America and Europe.
A Hand in Politics
For all his attempts to build consensus, however, Mr. Kerrey has brooked
no compromise when it comes to his own politics. In recent months,
students -- some of whom occupied his office that November day -- have
called for Mr. Kerrey to resign because of his support for a war against
Last fall, he joined the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a group
of current and former politicians set up by the Bush administration to
lobby for military action to oust Mr. Hussein. Mr. Kerrey says he did so
because he had taken an equally strong stance in the Senate.
Some New School students and professors have created a Web site,
FreeNSU.org, to voice their concerns. "The militarization of NSU is just
one of many problems that we have with Bob Kerrey and the direction he
is taking the university," says Nat Meysenburg, one of the student
protesters in Mr. Kerrey's office.
Amit S. Rai, a full-time instructor in cultural and media studies, says
such charges carry even more weight because the university has often
used its history as a "marketing ploy." The university was founded, in
1919, by a group of faculty members who had left Columbia University
because of their pacifist views on World War I.
"I have students in my class say to me every day, 'We are not living up
to why I was brought here,' " says Mr. Rai.
Mr. Kerrey won't budge.
"I've got a history in this thing," he says. "For me to go silent during
this debate would be cowardly. It's the opposite of what a university
president ought to do."
Several faculty members praise Mr. Kerrey for that view. "He's willing
to take a public stance, and I don't see why university presidents can't
do that, as long as that public stance does not lead him to undertake
policies that would really skew the New School in a direction that would
be antithetical to its mission," says William Hirst, a psychology
professor at the Graduate Faculty.
"If you really believe in academic freedom, which I do, there's
something lively about it," adds Mr. Hirst. "The alternative is some
sort of vanilla individual who just simply never says anything."
Mr. Kerrey will almost certainly continue to attract attention for his
work on and off the campus. This past fall, Mr. Kerrey, who sits on the
board of Tenet Healthcare, made more than $850,000 by cashing in stock
options nearly a month before the company's stock price collapsed. The
Securities and Exchange Commission in late November opened an informal
investigation into the stock sales by Mr. Kerrey and other company
insiders, although Mr. Kerrey has said that he acted on the advice of an
outside financial adviser and had no idea whether the stock would rise
Mr. Kerrey says he will continue to keep a hand in politics, not just by
taking a stand on issues but by campaigning for elected officials, as he
did for Senate candidates this past year.
"It would be like asking me if I'm going to respirate," he says. "I
spent 16 years in politics, and I'm not going to turn it off like a switch."
Fortunately for him, New School's trustees have encouraged him to remain
politically active. They realize that Mr. Kerrey may return to politics
once his five-year contract is up, possibly as a 2008 presidential
Mr. Kerrey is noncommittal about running for president. "It's not
impossible," he says.
For now, though, he is just settling in as New School's president, even
as he fends off the occasional critic.
"There hasn't been a demonstration at this university against me yet
that even makes the top 10 of those that I've experienced in politics,"
he says. "I don't consider it to be the end of the world. Tell me you
want me to resign, fine. I'm not going to resign. I'm still having fun."
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